The Canon Sure Shot A1 is a point-and-shoot 35mm film camera which first debuted in 1994. It’s a friendly, cute and simple-to-use camera, with a good lens and some interesting features not found in typical point-and-shoots of its era, most obvious of which is its ability to operate underwater to depths as great as 15 feet.
I love underwater cameras. I love them even though I live where the ocean is too cold for sane human use for ten months of the year and despite the fact that I can’t swim very well. There’s just something interesting, maybe even romantic, about a camera that can operate as well underwater as it can in open air. Like the Tudor Black Bay dive watch that mostly sits on my nightstand or the Zeiss binoculars that stay meticulously dustless on my office desk, underwater cameras are among the purpose-built gizmos that I dream of using to their full potential, yet never do. Still – I love them.
And I love this underwater camera, the one that I’ve spent the past few weeks shooting, just the same. It’s a fun, dead simple camera that makes great pictures (even if I’m too cowardly to use it in the ocean).
Let’s Dive Into That Spec Sheet
- Camera Type – Waterproof, fully automatic 35mm film camera
- Image area – 24 x 36mm (full frame)
- Underwater Depth – 5 meter (16 feet)
- Lens – Canon 32mm f/3.5
- Autofocus System – AiAF (Smart AF) system (fixed focus underwater)
- Shooting Range – 0.45 meters (1.5 feet) to infinity on land; 1 to 3 meters (3.3 to 9.9 feet) underwater; underwater macro mode 0.45 meters to 1 meter (1.5 to 3.3 feet)
- Shutter – Electromagnetically-driven program shutter
- Viewfinder – 0.42x magnification Albada-type finder with frame-lines, parallax correction frame-lines, and AF indicator
- Film Winding and Rewinding – Automatic
- Frame Counter – Counts up and down during winding and rewinding
- Film Check – Window on film door
- Self-Timer – 10 second delay
- Metering Range (at ISO 100) – Flash Auto and Flash On modes 1/60 f/3.5-1/250 f/22 (EV9.5-17); Flash Off mode 2 seconds f/3.5-1/250 f/22 (EV3-17)
- Film Speed – ISO 25-3200 DX-coded film.
- Flash – Built-in flash, automatic mode; 0.45-3.4 meters at ISO 100; recycle time approx. 4 seconds
- Battery – One 3V lithium battery (CR123) good for aprox. 18 rolls of film
- Buoyancy – Floats in water
- Dimensions – 133 x 88 x 53 mm (5.25 x 3.48 x 2.11 inches)
- Weight – 300 grams (10.6 oz.)
Shooting the Sure Shot A1
This whole segment defies elaboration. But I’ll elaborate. Because it’s my job.
The Canon Sure Shot A1 is, as I’ve already written, dead simple to use. Though it can also be said that users who read the manual will get more out of this camera than will someone who simply picks it up and starts firing. Sure, there’s only one dial and it’s only got five settings (four, if we don’t count “OFF”), but knowing when and how to use these settings will make at least a little of a difference.
The first step to using the camera is to load the film. This is done in the usual way, but unusually we should remember to check the film door’s rubber seal for errant sand particles or other debris. Flippant readers should pause and reflect, and not take this warning lightly. The camera’s manual states in no uncertain terms that even a single grain of sand or one strand of hair can render these all-important seals useless, resulting in a flooded and ruined camera. The manual also makes sure to mention, undoubtedly to avoid warranty claims resulting from user error, that a broken camera caused by a flooded film compartment simply “cannot be repaired.”
Once the door is shut, the camera automatically detects the film’s ISO via DX coding and auto-advances the film to the first frame. From here, we’re in classic point-and-shoot territory. For the majority of users and use cases, pointing and shooting will work just fine. Some finer points, however, exist.
The camera’s handy mode dial features a Flash Off mode, Flash On mode, Red Eye Reduction Automatic mode, and Underwater Macro Zone Focus mode. These modes all operate as would be expected by veteran Camera-likers™. Newcomers should remember the following Pro-tips™:
Use Flash On mode whenever shooting underwater, or when seeking to soften shadows on subjects in bright light (see my examples of my daughter’s portrait at the beach). Flash Off should be used in low light situations (this mode will force the camera to make a long exposure), or in places where flash photography is prohibited (will I take this camera to Disney World? Probably). Red Eye Reduction Auto mode is the standard shooting mode in which the camera does all of the work – most people will use this setting exclusively. And the Underwater Macro mode is for shooting fishies whenever they swim between 1.5 and 3.3 feet away from your face.
There’s also a self-timer!
In practical use, setting the camera to Auto nearly always makes a perfect photo. About 75% of the shots in this review were made with the camera set to Auto (am I Ken Rockwell now?). The camera’s exposure system works great, even in challenging lighting situations such as when a subject is heavily backlit by something big and bright, like The Sun. At times when my photographer brain says “those shadows are too harsh” a quick flick of the switch solves the problem by forcing a fill flash. When I notice that the light is dim and kill the flash, pictures look good too (though a bit softer from the subdued light and longer exposure).
The autofocus system, which Canon called AiAF (Smart focus), works amazingly well. When shooting on dry land, subjects not centered in the frame are still almost always focused upon accurately. For the trickiest of shots, where the subject is on the extreme edge of the frame, it’s possible to use the classic focus and recompose technique. Place the AF patch over your subject, half-press the shutter release button to lock focus, recompose and shoot with a full press of the button. Easy and fast.
My photographer brain is helped along in its picture-taking via some simple projected lines and lights in the viewfinder. The outer frames indicate the camera’s image area, and the smaller frame indicates the parallax corrected frame when shooting in macro mode. The center dot is the AF focusing patch – put this on your subject and half-press the shutter button. A green light on the right-hand side of the VF gives more info – a solid green LED indicates that focus has been achieved and that all is well. If the green light does not illuminate, focus has not been achieved and you are likely too close to your subject. A rapidly flashing light warns of camera shake (because we’re taking a slightly long exposure) and we should try to hold things as steady as possible or use a tripod.
And that essentially covers how to use this camera on land. Read the manual, use fresh film, and your photos will be properly focused and properly exposed a better-than-average 95% of the time.
When shooting underwater, things are a little more complicated. To start, the Auto mode should not be used, because the Red Eye Reduction feature will lead to longer exposures than is necessary. When shooting under the waves use Flash On mode in pools and when the water is relatively clear, or Macro mode when subjects are within the appropriate distance. If there’s excessive particulate in the water, your photos will likely turn out terrible in any mode, but the manual suggests using Flash Off.
The Canon Sure Shot A1’s autofocus system also functions differently underwater than it does on land. Here the AiAF system automatically deactivates and the camera converts to a fixed focus system. When underwater, any subject at distances between 3.3 and 9 feet will be in focus. But this calculation is not so simple, since the refractive index of water is approximately 1.33 times greater than that of air. For this reason, underwater subjects will appear about 25% closer than they actually are, and this should be factored when shooting.
I used this camera in my pool, in a park, and at the beach. I made a bunch of good photos. A good photographer could probably make great photos.
The camera is not limiting, and the lens is quite good. At 32mm, it’s a little bit wider than I’m accustomed to, but the viewfinder frame lines are accurate enough and the big, bright VF allows easy composition with glasses, sunglasses, and snorkel masks. The acceptably quick maximum aperture allows for low light shooting with the right speed film, and the camera’s ability to meter films up to 3200 ISO means we won’t be missing out when the sun starts setting.
My shots have been sharp and clean. There’s ample punch, excellent color rendition, and accurate exposure across a wide range of films and lighting conditions. Flares and ghosts do appear when we’re shooting with sun glancing off of the camera’s front. These most likely present as a result of the waterproof covering that necessarily encapsulates the lens. I don’t find these flares to be egregious. In fact, I enjoy them. They lend a summertime, cinematic vibe to my shots.
Care and Maintenance
I’d like readers who go on to purchase their own Canon Sure Shot A1 to be armed with some useful information prior to the shoot. It would be irresponsible of me to send you away without this knowledge. If you spend your hard-earned cash on an underwater camera, remember the following simple tips.
Never open the film back when the camera is wet or sandy. Always wash the camera off in clean, fresh (non-salt) water and dry the camera with a soft cloth prior to opening the film back. If you absolutely must open the film door to swap a roll before rinsing the camera, take care to dry the camera first. But more important than this – ensure that there’s absolutely no sand on the camera, paying special attention to the area around the latch which opens the film back. This latch in particular is very prone to collecting grains of sand, and attempting to open it with even a small amount of sand in the mechanism will inevitably seize the plastic latch and break the camera (don’t make me tell how I know).
Lastly, don’t rinse the camera under running water. While this camera can be submerged gently in the ocean or pool, it is not meant to withstand even a small amount of water pressure. Tossing the camera into the pool or ocean, or allowing it to sit under running tap-water will invariably create a leak. When rinsing the camera it is advised by the manual (and by me) that it should be gently submerged into a bucket of water and gently swished about to remove salt, chlorine, and sand.
Comparisons and Buyer’s Guide
As mentioned, I love underwater cameras and I’ve owned, shot, and reviewed quite a few – the Nikonos series (literally every model), the Nikon L35AW, the Chinon Splash, the Pentax IQ Zoom 90 WR, the Minolta Weathermatic…
In that pantheon of great underwater film-burners, the Canon Sure Shot A1 ranks pretty well. It’s a well-made, high-performing, extremely simple-to-use camera that’s comparable to other underwater point-and-shoots made by Nikon and Pentax and others. But it’s also sort of hard to rank.
Its lens is not as good as the Nikon L35AWs, but it’s almost indistinguishably close. It’s much smaller than the Nikon, and the Pentax 90WR. But the Pentax has a zoom lens. It’s not as durable as the Nikonos, but it is much more portable. It’s the cutest camera of the bunch, if that counts for anything.
There’s no reason to choose the Canon over any of the other underwater point-and-shoot cameras, but there’s also no reason to choose the others over the Canon. This decision may come down to brand loyalty, an aesthetic tingle, or a fondness or loathing for white plastic.
A week before I’d shot the Canon Sure Shot A1, I wondered to myself how the experience would end. My love for underwater cameras and unusual camera design had me hedging that I’d find a new friend in the Canon. But I also knew that if my shots came back under-exposed, badly focused, or otherwise botched by an inept, old camera, I’d end up hating it. Luckily, the little white and red cutie didn’t disappoint.
It’s a great little camera, one that makes effortless and beautiful snapshots of beach days and aquatic adventures. It can dunk 15 feet underwater and still work great. And though I may never find myself firing its flash in front of a full grown leopard shark, you can bet your snorkel I’ll have this Canon Sure Shot A1 with me the next time I’m in the pool.
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